Observations on Churches of Christ – The Graying of our Churches

by Tim Woodroof

 

Interim Ministry Partners (IMP) has the privilege of working intensively with churches across the country—more than seventy-five congregations in the last few years. As a result of our work, IMP is strategically (perhaps uniquely) positioned to observe churches in a wide variety of circumstances and draw out some common themes. This blog series (“Observations on Churches of Christ”) addresses some of those themes and offers a few reflections for those of us who are interested in thinking about the future of Churches of Christ.

We believe IMP congregations are generally representative of Churches of Christ as a whole. Though we haven’t worked with a large enough sample of churches to generalize our observations to all Churches of Christ, we have touched enough churches in diverse circumstances for our observations to be suggestive and illuminating for a larger sphere of congregations. Since we do interim ministry, IMP churches are experiencing significant transitions (losing a pulpit minister or enduring a turn-over in elder-leadership). In some instances, those transitions are precipitated by persistent internal problems: systemic pathologies … leadership missteps … theological tensions. In other instances, the stressors are circumstantial: the demographics around these churches are changing … economic conditions are shifting.

All of our churches (and the communities of which they are a part) are experiencing transition and having to adapt to changing conditions and circumstances.

That said, many congregations of the Churches of Christ are struggling with these sorts of stressors—to greater or lesser degrees. All of our churches (and the communities of which they are a part) are experiencing transition and having to adapt to changing conditions and circumstances. IMP churches may well provide a “canary in the mine-shaft” indicator of challenges many other churches are facing (or will soon face). We need more and better data on how Churches of Christ are faring in terms of aging, outreach, growth, etc.. But, given the sparsity of good and comprehensive data, perhaps our observations will be helpful.

To begin the discussion about the future, consider the question of “age” among members in congregations of Churches of Christ today. There are several assumptions we commonly bump into when working with churches and church leaders:

  • “Our congregations are graying”—the gnawing impression that our congregations are steadily growing older.
  • “We are not holding onto our youth”—the pervasive fear that our children are leaving church when transitioning to college. The apprehension is not that college students are failing to “move their membership” with a change of address but are, rather, abandoning church attendance entirely.
  • “We are not appealing to millennials (thirty-somethings) or Gen-Z (twenty-somethings).” Leaders consistently report a concern that members of these age-groups seem to have little participation (measured in time, energy, or money) in our congregations. Among church leaders, the perception is that these age-groups are underrepresented.
  • “We are missing males in their 40’s and 50’s.” Many church leaders sense that men in this age-group have walked away from their congregations—if not physically then mentally and emotionally. Even if present, they seem to be leery of any leadership responsibilities.

These perceptions, if validated, would presage difficulties ahead. Any group experiencing significant aging, an inability to keep and involve younger audiences, and a vacuum of mature, energetic leaders-in-their-prime will struggle to survive in the long-term. A key quality of growing and thriving churches should be the ability to reproduce new generations of believers to replenish the ranks of an aging population.

Although Interim Ministry Partners cannot speak to trends experienced by Churches of Christ in general, we can summarize the conditions of a subset of churches with which we interact and provide data about a few specific churches to affirm or question the above perceptions.

A key quality of growing and thriving churches should be the ability to reproduce new generations of believers to replenish the ranks of an aging population.
Summary of Churches in Our Experience

As a part of our work with congregations, IMP conducts assessments that, in part, consider the age of members attending those congregations. A summary of those assessments suggests that Churches of Christ do, in fact, face a challenge with aging populations and experience problems attracting younger generations of believers.

Many (most?) of these churches demonstrate the following characteristics:

  • A majority of members are over 50 years old. Our congregations are significantly skewed towards an older demographic.
  • Younger age groups are often (sometimes profoundly) underrepresented.
  • Males in their 40’s or 50’s are often underrepresented and (at least according to anecdotal evidence) disengaged.

Perhaps a closer look at specific congregations will help illustrate these trends. The next blog article in this series offers a few case studies for consideration.

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